As Motherboard has reported in-depth, advertisers do not like putting their brand alongside hate speech, harassment, violence, terrorism, suicide, self-harm, violent, or otherwise explicit content. Legally, Twitter will have to continue to remove things like child porn and copyrighted material (if hit with a copyright takedown request), meaning the company will have to have some rules. Twitter was run as a for-profit business, and Musk has indicated that he intends to make the company more profitable. So unless he wants to run Twitter as a charity to free speech absolutists amid a potential mass advertiser exodus, Musk will face the same problem that every other social media company has faced: balancing "free speech" with its ability to run a sustainable and profitable company. Additionally, Apple and Google have shown they are willing to ban social media apps that allow hate speech and other violent content."Twitter and all other user-generated content services must constantly classify content as illegal, 'lawful but awful,' or completely permissible on the service. Things like child sexual abuse material and copyright infringing files are illegal and usually must be removed when the service recognizes their illegality. Completely permissible content isn't a problem," Eric Goldman, Associate Dean for Research and Professor, Santa Clara University School of Law, told Motherboard. "It's the middle category, 'lawful but awful' content, that poses so much trouble for everyone. Most 'harassing,' 'threatening,' or 'violent' content fits into this category (except in extreme cases). Because it's lawful, there's usually no obligation to remove the content; indeed, the Constitution may prohibit imposing any liability. Nevertheless, most regulators want that content removed; as do advertisers and many users." "If Musk thinks he can change Twitter's procedures to accept more lawful-but-awful content, the law may permit this choice, but I don't expect it will be a financially prudent one," he continued. "Instead, by driving away customers and advertisers, a choice to embrace lawful-but-awful content could reduce Twitter's overall valuation substantially."
“By driving away customers and advertisers, a choice to embrace lawful-but-awful content could reduce Twitter's overall valuation substantially”
Image: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images
Conservatives and the right are widely celebrating Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, and are basking in the “liberal tears” that come with the world’s richest man spending $43 billion to, as they see it, literally own the libs. “I think it’s very telling that you have some of these legacy media outlets in D.C. and New York saying this was such a bad thing because Musk believes in free speech … it seems like this big tech companies including Twitter have gone from being open platforms to being enforcers of a narrative,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said before signing a bill about election security. “We are 100 percent supportive of what Twitter’s board of directors did to accept Elon Musk’s offer.”
Tucker Carlson led off his show positively giddy: “The reason today’s sale of Twitter is big news, the reason it could turn out to be a pivot point in our history is that Elon Musk does not agree with the billionaires in the tech business … Elon Musk believes in free speech. He believes everyone should be allowed to talk … going forward, if you disagree with this administration’s latest directive, you get to say so to an audience. They’re up there from the podium, the biggest megaphone in the world commanding you to hate this or that group, lecturing you about who’s good or who’s evil … but before today, you didn’t have a right to express your disagreement in public.”The left “is going crazy because they’re going to lose [Twitter], that shows you the monopoly they have,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan told Sean Hannity.Nearly every post on r/conservative is about Musk buying Twitter and how liberals are very upset. “Elon Musk literally owns the libs,” one meme says. “The left hates free speech!” another states. Dozens of posts show a picture of an anti-Trump protester screaming that has been used as an example of liberal tears since Trump’s inauguration. Offshoots of r/the_donald, the pro-Donald Trump subreddit that was banned several years ago, are talking almost exclusively about the Twitter news. Breitbart is laughing at human rights organizations that are concerned that Twitter rules will change under Musk.
The left is very upset that Musk bought Twitter, with one subset of Twitter looking for alternative platforms and politicians like Elizabeth Warren calling the deal "dangerous for our democracy," but Twitter’s new owner might not change the platform as much as either side imagines. Under Jack Dorsey, Twitter always had and still has the laxest content moderation rules and least sophisticated enforcement of any major social media platform. For years, its official internal policy was to allow Republican politicians to tweet white supremacist talking points, and it long thought that "counter speech" could be used to combat racism and hate speech, which is the favored and failed strategy of free speech absolutists. Twitter has been notoriously bad at finding and deleting the accounts of literal terrorists from ISIS and avowed neo-Nazi militias. Its enforcement on harassment and threats has been objectively terrible by any measure, and its latest strategy has largely been to give users the ability to more easily hide threats and harassment against them rather than ban the accounts altogether. Twitter's spam and crypto-scam problem is well documented. Its moderation in any language besides English is horrendous.
In any case, Republicans have found it politically advantageous to paint Twitter (and the rest of Big Tech) as extremely biased against conservatives. At least at the moment, early data suggests Twitter being sold to Elon Musk is having an actual effect on the makeup of Twitter's user base. Christopher Bouzy, a data scientist who runs the bot tracker Bot Sentinel, tweeted that prominent Democratic politicians have lost followers in the last 24 hours, while prominent Republican politicians have gained followers. “Ron DeSantis gained over 96,500 [followers] in a single day! Someone at Twitter really needs to explain this,” he tweeted. “I can understand Left-leaning accounts deciding to close their accounts after the Elon Musk news, but why the sudden significant increase in Republican followers? This is not normal.”There is likely a pretty straightforward explanation here. Conservative politicians and news outlets have spent the last five years screaming that Big Tech is biased against them and have encouraged their followers to quit Twitter and join “free speech” alternatives like Gab or Parler. Many conservatives likely left the platform after the Jan. 6 riots and after Donald Trump was banned. At least some people likely followed Trump to his new platform, Truth Social. Now, the narrative is that Twitter is going to be saved by Elon Musk, free speech warrior. A simple search of the iOS App Store’s top charts show that Twitter is either the top or second-most-downloaded app over the last 24 hours; for the last several months it has been mostly the 30th-40th most-downloaded app on any given day.
The market, too, seems to think that conservatives are going to go back to Twitter. Donald Trump’s SPAC, the Digital World Acquisition Corp., which does not own Truth Social but is inextricably linked to Trump, saw its shares fall 15 percent after Twitter announced it was accepting Musk’s bid.The right is thrilled that Musk purchased Twitter and (incorrectly; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) see him as a free speech absolutist. While we may see Musk invite Trump and other banned conservatives back to the platform, they may be disappointed to learn that Facebook and YouTube and, yes, Twitter, have rules not because they hate Republicans or free speech, but because of the invisible hand of the free market that conservatives love so much.